Editor’s Note: This article was first published on November 18, 2016.
In 1954, a London cabbie named George King received a telepathic communication from an extraterrestrial intelligence named Master Aetherius: “Prepare yourself! You are to become the voice of Interplanetary Parliament.” This message, delivered from the planet Venus, was the first of hundreds of similar communications King allegedly received over his lifetime — some telepathically, some while in a trance. In 1955, King’s experiences inspired him to found the Aetherius Society, a religious group “dedicated to spreading, and acting upon, the teachings of advanced extraterrestrial intelligences.”
King soon anointed himself as “Primary Terrestrial Mental Channel,” and devoted his life to cultivating the unorthodox theology of his religion. One of the core beliefs of the Aetherius Society is that extraterrestrial life exists, and that aliens are highly evolved spiritual beings known as “Cosmic Masters.”
Occasionally, these extraterrestrials will take human form and visit us on earth, spreading spiritual guidance across the globe. Examples of Cosmic Masters include Buddha, Sri Krishna, Confucius and Jesus. The spiritual work of the Aetherius Society revolves around five “Cosmic Missions,” which are rituals designed to cooperate with these Cosmic Masters, and heal the world through prayer.
In 1959, King moved to Los Angeles to found the American headquarters of his movement, determined to spread his beliefs in “Gods From Space,” UFOs, spiritual healing and psychic powers. That same year, King appeared on a BBC talk show to discuss his new religion. During the program, King psychically channels the Master Aetherius, writhing theatrically as Aetherius “speaks” through him. Aetherius confirms that aliens travel the universe in flying saucers and that the earth faces a dangerous situation because of “deviation from spiritual laws” and “atomic experimentation.”
It may seem unfathomable that King’s ideas would gain traction, but looking at world history during this time suggests some reasons why his message may have resonated. The year 1955 marked both the founding of the Aetherius Society and the beginning of the Space Race, the famous competition between the Soviet Union and the United States for dominance in spaceflight technology. With the world’s anxieties fixed on the sky, King’s philosophy offered existential security in response to the unknown possibilities of space, the atomic bomb and the Cold War missile race. Gods in UFOs could help us heal the earth.
Not all of King’s beliefs were quite so fantastical. In the same BBC interview, King says, “If you are a Christian, then live the laws as laid down by Jesus. If you are a Buddhist, live the laws as laid down by Buddha. If you are a Hindu then be the best Hindu. This procedure is the one true way for men of earth to save themselves from their lower aspects.” King did not use his BBC appearance to proselytize. Rather, he insisted on the validity of other religions, and encouraged people to stay on their own spiritual paths.
Though King died in 1997, the Aetherius Society lives on, maintaining chapters in 11 countries across the world, with headquarters in both London and Los Angeles. I emailed Brian Keneipp, Bishop of the LA chapter, to see if he would allow me to study the Aetherius Society and profile the group. After a week, a skeptical response hit my inbox:
I had a look at some of your work… I am always open to getting our message out, but am wondering how you plan on telling it in such a way to interest your readership. That being said, I would be very happy to talk with you over a cup of coffee or tea at our Temple in Hollywood.
We arranged a date for my first visit to the Aetherius Society.
* * * * *
The day of my meeting arrives. I walk up the steps of the Aetherius Temple, and my nerves kick in. What if the Aetherius Society is a cult? I stop at a large entry gate. Stars have been carved in its smooth iron surface, offering glimpses of the interior grounds. There is no buzzer, no intercom. I try the gate — it’s unlocked.
I enter, finding the grounds completely deserted. Three pink Spanish-style bungalows stand before me. Vibrant gardens line the perimeter of the compound, muffling noise from the street. I approach the largest building, and open the door. Keneipp greets me inside, welcoming me into his quaint office. He is in his late 50s, with kind eyes and graying hair.
Keneipp is understandably concerned about my journalistic intentions. I assure him it is not my goal to run an exposé with a headline like “ALIEN CULT TAKES OVER HOLLYWOOD.” I want to learn more about the Society and portray it as accurately as I can.
After about an hour, Keneipp agrees to the piece. He suggests that I observe Operation Prayer Power, one of the church’s “Cosmic Missions.” I agree to attend, and thank Keneipp for his time.
A week later, I receive an email from Keneipp regarding my planned observation of Operation Prayer Power:
To give you a fuller experience, I would like to give you one or two of the mantras so you can join in for a couple of sessions… To do that, I would need about 15 minutes of your time, prior to you coming… I would prefer it to be on a different day, so we can give it space. Look forward to seeing you again!
I am slightly wary: I agreed to observe, not participate. However, I choose to trust his intentions; I did after all, ask to be immersed in the practices of the church. We set another time to meet.
* * * * *
Brian Keneipp was going to be a doctor. He had always been a devoted student of science, which lead him to study pre-med at Southern Illinois University in the 1970s. But he was also curious about what science could not explain, namely metaphysics and the phenomenon of UFOs. It was this curiosity that inspired him to attend a lecture conducted by a member of the Aetherius Society. He found himself enthralled and inspired by Aetherius theology, and soon began researching their beliefs in depth.
I ask what initially attracted him to the Society, and he cites one of core philosophies of the church: Mother Earth is a living goddess, who can feel both the literal and karmic damage we do to her. Society members work to heal that damage.
“The biggest reason why the Aetherius Society is here, why the Cosmic Masters came to earth, is because the Mother Earth has to change,” Keneipp says. “She’d held herself back for hundreds of thousands of years because she’s providing mankind a home to evolve. She’s been told by the karmic lords that she can no longer hold herself back. And so the big push by the Cosmic Masters is to raise as many people up so that they will be able to get to a point where they will enter a new age here on earth.”
Essentially, the Society’s goal is to lift Mother Earth’s burden with love and prayer, a task helped by descended Cosmic Masters like Jesus and Buddha.
Inspired by his new religion, Keneipp soon abandoned the pre-med program at SIU, deciding instead to move to Los Angeles in 1978. Keneipp devoted his life to the church, working directly with George King as he expanded his religion. I ask Keneipp what it was like to work for King during those formative years.
His response surprises me: “[King] could be very hard, as you would hear other masters of yoga would be in India. They weren’t politically correct and gooey and friendly. They could be extremely harsh and hard and pull you up. [King] expected you to give the best all the time.”
I ask how this expectation manifested itself on a daily basis. “If you made a mistake on the printing press, for example — then it wouldn’t be, ‘Try better next time,’ it’s, ‘You’re off the printing press,’” Keneipp recalls. “So there’d be a high price to pay. That was both difficult and exhilarating, because you had to always be on your guard, and do everything to the best of your ability. It could be a lot of fun being with him, but it could also be very difficult. You were living on the edge, you were pushing the envelope, and because of that you formed tight bonds with people who were around him as well.”
Rodney is another longtime member, who first discovered the Aetherius Society as a teen in Los Angeles in the ’70s. He eventually came to work as King’s graphic designer, designing the layouts for King’s many theological texts. Rodney, like Keneipp, references the social cohesion of King’s inner sanctum and the “intensity” of his demeanor.
“He was trying to get as much done as he could while he was here in this body.” Rodney says. “And the people who were closest to him had to keep up with him. Everybody around him would get exhausted and he would just keep going. George King was very driven, very intense. But he could also be very funny, personal, caring. He was a man of remarkable personality and talents.”
The Society flourished under King’s strict guidance. Members created deep bonds, in an intense work environment, under the auspices of an uncommon religion. King’s methods may have been harsh, but they were effective. This man, with his anomalous beliefs and fantastic personal mythology, had created a following.
* * * * *
I return to the Aetherius Society on a Sunday afternoon. Today, Brian will teach me two separate mantras, so I can participate in Operation Prayer Power later that week.
We enter the sanctuary — an open room, with pink walls. Framed photos of planets hang alongside portraits of Jesus, Buddha, and Krishna. At the front of the empty room, two folding chairs rest at the foot of an altar. We sit.
“We’re fairly strict on the law of mantra,” Brian says. “These mantras I’ll be giving you, we ask you not to give to anyone else.”
I agree to secrecy, and Brian steps behind the altar to play a recording of George King. King’s voice comes over the loudspeaker, a dry English tenor, slowly drawing out each syllable of the mantra, which is in Sanskrit.
When the tutorial concludes, Brian joins me again. He recites the mantra once more, and I parrot it back. His concentration on my speech is intense, focused. He offers me corrections on my pronunciation. His eyes lock with mine as I repeat the mantra again.
* * * * *
King left a succession plan that ensured the church would continue after his death. But it also needed the strength of new members to carry his vision into the future.
Ashima is one such individual. She is in her late 30s, intelligent and passionately devoted to the church. Born in Hong Kong, Ashima emigrated to Canada with her father and brothers shortly after graduating from college. There, she found a boyfriend who first introduced her to the Society. “What really attracted me to the Aetherius Society was the emphasis on service. It’s about giving back to the world, to all those around us, to the Mother Earth and beyond. Because we’re all tied together.”
In 2011, she made the decision to move to Los Angeles from Canada, to join the U.S. headquarters. Ashima is part of a dedicated group of volunteers the Society calls the “staff team members.” The Society operates with a very small budget, and depends heavily on volunteers like Ashima to manage day-to-day operations. Ashima works a full-time day job and volunteers at the Society from 7:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. on most weeknights and from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekends.
“There’s a pretty strict schedule set up,” she says. “We’re required to spend most of our free time to help out at the Society, doing whatever work we’re needed to do. I’m pretty much there seven days a week other than the times that we’re scheduled to be off, or request off.”
Though this may seem like an intense commitment, Ashima likens her experience to that of her mother, a Buddhist nun living in a temple in Taiwan. Both women have devoted their lives to their spiritual beliefs, though Ashima sees her commitment as far less restrictive than her mother’s.
“My mother has to live by typical requirements of certain monastic orders,” she explains. “In some ways [my commitment to] the Aetherius Society is almost like that, but not exactly. The Aetherius Society has no [behavioral] requirements — for example, people can drink, smoke, eat meat. But my mom’s a vegetarian and it’s a requirement. She cannot drink. And she has to be celibate.”
Rodney is careful to note that most members of the church do not devote as much time as Ashima does. “People who really want to dedicate their lives to this path might choose to become a staff team member like Ashima,” Rodney explains. “But it’s an organization which does quite the opposite of pressuring people to increase their level of activity. The Society only wants people who want to be there, and who resonate with our teachings.”
Karen is a young punk-rock drummer who recently joined the Aetherius Society. She is now an enthusiastic member, but was initially taken aback by her experience at Operation Prayer Power, the weekly ritual where members charge a “spiritual battery” with “prayer energy.”
“I came to Operation Prayer Power first, and got freaked out a little bit.” Karen recalls with a laugh. “I thought it was really weird. It took me a long time to get more open to it.”
“What kept you coming back?” I ask.
“It just felt good. It wasn’t like somebody brainwashed me or anything. Actually, the first time I did it, I was freaking out because I literally felt the energy coming out of my hands. Us humans have a difficult time believing something we cannot see, right? But after I felt it I thought, ‘Well, how can I not believe it, if I’m actually feeling it?’”
She’s right that many people have a hard time believing “what they cannot see.” That’s why I want to witness Operation Prayer Power for myself.
* * * * *
“Good evening, and welcome to Operation Prayer Power,” Brian says. He stands at the front of the Aetherius sanctuary, speaking into a microphone. A group of approximately 40 people in red robes form a semicircle in front of him. A dark blue light casts a glow over the congregants.
At of the front of the room, mounted on a tripod, sits a light green box roughly the size of a ‘60s-era transmitter radio. This box is the “spiritual prayer battery,” and tonight we are gathered to charge this battery with energy from prayer. This energy will be “stored” in the battery, and later released to heal the world in a time of crisis.
Soft, ethereal music comes through the sound system. I stand in the back of the room, behind the red-robed members. We lift our hands and open our palms to the battery. Brian then leads the group in the rapid recitation of a mantra. “Faster,” he encourages, as the intensity of the chanting increases. Though I don’t believe in the existence of holy extraterrestrials, UFOs or God, it is impossible to deny the intensity of this gathering. It feels like something out of Stanley Kubrick’s imagination.
As the group continues its rhythmic incantation, three robed individuals step forward. They form a single-file line in front of the prayer battery. The first — a thin man in his 60s — approaches the battery. A shock of white hair is illuminated by the blue from the lights above. He places one hand on the battery and thrusts the other skyward.
“Blessed are the planetary ones; they have left their planetary bliss to accept terrible limitation among you, so that your passage through experience may be guaranteed.” He prays with a dramatic flourish. His voice is a contained roar, rising above the chanting crowd.
* * * * *
In his book Cults: Faith, Healing and Coercion, Marc Galanter, a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine, avoids a sensationalized approach toward cults, offering instead a more nuanced understanding. Galanter uses the term “charismatic group” as an umbrella term that includes radical religious sects, spiritually oriented healing groups, and even ideologically oriented self-help groups. His book examines a range of charismatic groups, some of which impact members positively (Alcoholics Anonymous) and some of which do not (Heaven’s Gate).
According to Galanter, all charismatic groups are united by four psychological elements: “Members (1) have a shared belief system, (2) sustain a high level of social cohesiveness, (3) are strongly influenced by the group’s behavioral norms, and (4) impute charismatic (or sometimes divine) power to the group or its leadership.”
The Aetherius Society meets all of these qualifications except for one: Members are not strongly influenced to adopt any uncommon behavioral norms. According to Galanter, “the norms for behavior in a charismatic group play an inordinate role in determining how its members conduct themselves.” The opposite is true of the Aetherius Society. Every member I speak with is careful to emphasize that the Society never imposes behavioral mandates on its members.
“George King actually talks about the importance of discernment. What he means is you should determine what is right and wrong,” Rodney says. “And that’s what you’re talking about when you talk about Heaven’s Gate, and the teachers who said, ‘Put on these black sneakers, we’re all gonna die and jump on a comet.’ Don’t be a fool. Discriminate and look into any kind of an organization or activity that you involve yourself in. Study it, investigate it. Is it right or wrong?”
In that respect, the Aetherius Society doesn’t seem like a cult. Yes, it is a new religious movement formed by a charismatic leader, with an idiosyncratic belief system. But its goal is one shared by many religions: “reducing suffering in the world.” While the Society’s methods for achieving this (such as charging a battery with prayer) may be scientifically dubious, the intention is genuine. In the end, I’m rather shocked to discover that the Aetherius Society doesn’t shock me at all.
* * * * *
Operation Prayer Power comes to a close. A member guides us into a circle for a final prayer. After a moment of stillness, the service is over. As the crowd disperses, a woman turns to me, with a hopeful smile.
“Did you feel it?” She asks. “Did you feel the energy?”
I did not, in fact, feel it — but there is so much joy in her expression that I can’t bring myself to respond in the negative.
“Yes,” I say.
Though I do not “feel it,” I cannot deny that members of the Aetherius Society do seem to be feeling it, and feeling it intensely. Who am I to deny this woman her experience?
In many ways, the Aetherius Society unites all religious narratives. In their theology, the great religious leaders (Buddha, Jesus, Krishna, Gandhi, etc) are all the same thing: earthly manifestations of greater Cosmic Masters. Now, your ability to believe this meta-narrative, is dependent upon your willingness to include UFOs and Jesus in the same sentence. But just because their narrative is a bit kookier than some other theological stories, does that make it invalid? And isn’t the story of Jesus — a man who walked on water, and cured the blind — also a bit kooky in its way?
The most important aspect of the Aetherius Society is summed up in its own official literature: “The Society does not regard itself as the one and only path to enlightenment or salvation. It maintains that all the great religions are simply different expressions of the one essential timeless reality that is the Divine Source.” There is no insistence that the Aetherius Society offers the sole theological truth. Quite the opposite: We are all struggling to understand the mystery of life, and every path toward meaning is a valid one.
Though I will never join the Aetherius Society, I wish them the absolute best in achieving their goals. At this moment in history, humanity needs all the healing it can get.